Little Brother
Jenny Regan

Little Brother On Building Friendship, Bucking Nostalgia, And Embracing Freedom

Little Brother is back for the first time in nearly a decade, with a stronger friendship and the same musical brilliance that made them such an important act.

When Little Brother first emerged in the early 2000s, they impressed fans with 9th Wonder’s warm, sample-based production and Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh’s smart, relatable rhymes about holding down regular jobs and pursuing rap success while lobbing jokes and life lessons along the way. During a time where many people wrongfully pigeonholed the South for snap, crunk and trap music, Little Brother brought a different vibe from North Carolina, adding thoughtfulness to their fun, in the lineage of Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest. Their first two albums, The Listening and The Minstrel Show, earned critical acclaim and die-hard fan bases. But as many groups do, Little Brother eventually broke up: 9th Wonder left the group and has continued his success as a producer, and Phonte and Pooh recorded two more albums together before calling it quits. Both have continued to make music since then. Phonte has released two solo rap albums and earned a Grammy as half of Foreign Exchange, an R&B/soul group he formed with Netherlands producer Nicolay. Pooh has released several albums since the group ended as well, along with using his industry experience to manage Dreamville rapper Lute and producer Blakk Soul.

But while each of them has earned continued prosperity in the music business separately, their fans have consistently begged for Little Brother to come back together. And after a reunion show that was chronicled in a documentary, this year, they did exactly that: Phonte and Big Pooh, sans 9th Wonder, released May The Lord Watch. The group’s vibe is still intact as strong as ever with their thoughtful rhymes and hilarious skits, and the album doesn’t only sound like they never broke up – it feels like they’ve actually gotten closer. That tone continued when they visited the VIBE office in New York City, where they’re laughing and sharing memories between answering questions. “We’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers,” Phonte said. “We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.”

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VIBE: I’ve heard a lot of stories about how artists resolve differences. Sometimes, things reach a boiling point and the two parties sit down and hash things out. Other times, they won’t even speak about the issues because they weren’t truly a big deal in the first place – they just start working together again. How did you two get on the same page?

Rapper Big Pooh: Niggas aired it all out. I saw when 9th and I first started back talking, we didn’t have a real conversation. It was more like, “the past is the past and we’re good,” but a lot of shit was still unresolved because you never have that conversation. So when ‘Te and I first got on the phone for the first time, it was a four-hour conversation.

Phonte: You can’t just treat the infection, you have to treat the cause.

Pooh: We went through it all, man. It was deeper than just, “I apologize.” We broke it all the way down so, if this is the last conversation we have, I’m going to tell you everything. Everything is on the table. When we broke it all down, we realized, niggas just didn’t know how to communicate certain things. And when you don’t communicate certain things, you’re left to assume … As a mature man at this point, you’re like, “damn dog, I really didn’t talk to you over bullshit. We could’ve cleared this up and that would’ve been the end of it.” Even to this day, we make sure that we’re upfront with each other. “Ay bro, I said such and such yesterday, I didn’t mean it that way” just to make sure we stay there, because things could easily get out of control.

Phonte: Keep that line of communication open because you need to check in with each other. Even with the album title May The Lord Watch, you’re sending well wishes to someone – while we’re apart from each other I hope the Lord is watching over you, but at the same time, we’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers. We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.

VIBE: What is it like for you guys to be so close now, when Little Brother's rift was so public before?

Phonte: With me and Pooh, our rift was never really public. Me and 9th had a moment where our shit got real public, but me and Pooh never had that.

Pooh: People didn’t know we weren’t talking until we said we weren’t talking.

Phonte: It was a three-man group, but if you’re all frat brothers, me and Pooh crossed the burning sands. We were in the foxhole together. That wasn’t the case with the third member. He was like grad chapter; you’re on paper. The dynamic just ain’t the same. We all brothers, but… Even in our disagreements, when [Pooh and I] weren’t talking to each other, it never got to the point of disrespect. We never went out on each other like that because even at the root of disappointment, anger and hurt, there was always respect there. I think that made it a little bit easier, vs. if things got super ugly on the Internet where nothing dies, if we had some stupid online war.

Pooh: That was definitely always there. And I’m not a fool. I’m not going to war with a nigga who’s a magician with words online. [both artists laugh] Nigga’s an English major! Magna cum laude! I’m not going to war with that nigga online that knows everything about me.

Phonte: That’s the thing. You get in a beef with a nigga you’re cool with, that is assured mutual destruction. It’s over. Because by the time that shit is over with, the only niggas y’all gonna have is each other. Because everything else is over. Your marriage, your job, your family. We blowing all this shit up.

Pooh: Can’t go to war with a nigga that knows where the bones are buried.

VIBE: When I heard May The Lord Watch, I was surprised by just how much it truly sounded like a Little Brother album. Both of you have done so much since then, so I was didn’t know what to expect. How much effort went into capturing that feel, and how much of it was natural?

Phonte: It was hard. I can’t front. This is the hardest project I’ve ever worked on in my career. You know what you’re looking for, you know what the feeling is, you know in your heart and your bones what Little Brother is and what that sound is. But you don’t know it until you hear it. So trying to explain to another producer what you’re looking for – you know what it is, but I’ll know it when I hear it. The good part is that if you’re working with a good producer, when they find it and you say “that’s it!” they can move forward. But it was hard. We went through a lot of tracks and probably three or four different configurations of the album. We started in October 2018 and the final finish was probably three weeks ago. It was a real painstaking process. I’m happy that it sounds easy to people, but there was a lot of work that went into that.

VIBE: Was there any hesitation to do the album at all once you realized 9th Wonder wouldn’t be part of it?

Pooh: I think once he was removed from the picture, it actually became less complicated. The thing people don’t understand is that ever since the beginning of recording The Minstrel Show, it’s just been me and Te anyway. Once he was back in the picture, it was really back to ground zero because we had to figure out how this works. If we were Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron, Wade and LeBron been best friends since fucking forever, now you gotta integrate Chris Bosh into the picture, how does that work? When he was out the picture it was less complicated and we could just focus on the work. … We just dove in. Niggas didn’t check the temperature of the water, we didn’t see how deep it was, we didn’t know if anybody else was in the pool. Niggas just jumped in and saw if we could swim. That helped us because we didn’t take the time to overthink it.

… We started at the beginning of October. By the time we realized it was official that 9th was not going to be in the picture, in December, first thing I said to Te was: “nigga I know we’re starting over, but we’re here now, we gotta finish this shit out.”

Phonte: That was a real conversation we had. At that point I had to ask him if he still wanted to do this, because I didn’t want to assume. We started the record over again from scratch and rebuilt it from nothing, and kept working and pushing through until we finished it.

VIBE: Was is frustrating for fans to always be asking you guys to get back together, when you knew you weren’t in the space to do it?

Pooh: It was definitely frustrating. Each of us individually had to learn to reframe their want. I had to think about it from a standpoint of, “damn, some shit I did in 2002 and 2003 is still ringing off. That’s so flattering. Why would you want to not have that happen?” I thank my man Rich Bartell for this, man. I expressed my frustration and he said, “you gotta understand what this means: when you have this type of reaction, the game isn’t finished with y’all. Until y’all come back and set shit right, this is gonna happen.” He proved prophetic, but that changed the way I framed the idea of people asking for Little Brother. At that point, once I made that change mentally, I was able to take it more in stride. It’s frustrating as fuck when you’re trying to promote a new record, and people are saying, “yeah that’s cool, but when we gon get that Little Brother?” But at the same time, I really did some shit that’s resonating with people after all this time. Who can really say that, especially today, when you can be popping today and by next month, who?

VIBE: How did you react when A Tribe Called Quest dropped their final album, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service in 2016?

Phonte: I was just amazed that the shit got done. It was amazing to see, something I never thought we’d get in this lifetime. And Phife passing just put it in a different space because this was the last time we’re going to hear his voice. He had verses on that album that were as good as anything else in his catalog. Even though he was at the end of his life physically, creatively he still had juice left in the tank. That informed us when we were working on May The Lord Watch. We aren’t making a nostalgic play. We’re not just coming back and making The Minstrel Show 2, or The Listening 2, or Get Back Again.

Nostalgia is bullshit. When you fall in love with a song, and people say “I love this thing,” you don’t love the song. What you love is that time in your life when you had less responsibilities and you were 40 pounds lighter. That’s what you love, that’s what you want to go back to. It’s what that song represents. “That was before I had you, me and your mom was kicking it good.” I can’t compete with your feelings or your memories. … It’s not that I don’t believe in sequels. If we’re talking movies, if there’s more of a story to tell, then it’s cool. But [often, with music], it’s just a marketing technique. It’s just niggas saying, “I’m gonna take my biggest album, then call this new album my biggest album part two,” but that may not have shit to do with your biggest album that you named it after. With Wayne (Tha Carter) and Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, it was more of a series. But with The Blueprint, he could’ve stopped after the first one. I’m always living in the present and thinking what’s the best way to serve my audience now? We don’t need The Color Purple 2: Mistah Strikes Back. (laughs)

VIBE: Phonte, I want to take a couple of quotes from your music. On “Dance In The Reign” from Charity Starts At Home, you said, “No one can say his life ain’t his / Some may even say underachiever, ‘cause they are not believers / that you don’t want the world, but I done seen the world / and if you ever saw hell, you wouldn’t want it either.” On this new one, you say, “peace of mind rarely comes with a check attached.” When did you begin to think that way?

Phonte: I started seeing it when I started having conversations with rappers who, on paper had more than me, and were trying to convince me that I should do this, but yet they were miserable. I remember a very specific phone call one time where I had a certain MC hit me and he was talking. “I’m trying to sign you.” I was just like, “dude, no. I’d never sign to another rapper, are you shitting me?” He’s going on. “I think you’re one of the best.” It was cool and it was fine, but at the end of the conversation, it turned into, “man, I’ve got one record left on my deal, and I’m out of this shit. I’m going to do me.” I stopped him: “I want you to understand what just happened. You’re calling me to try to convince me that I need the thing that you’re selling, but I already have the thing that you want, which is freedom.” That was the end of the conversation.

VIBE: Pooh, you really bodied this album too. There’s the line that I quoted, “my pen used to run across the page doing suicides,” on "All In A Day." And on “Right On Time,” you talk about delivering UberEats and being bittersweet that people didn't recognize you. What did it take for you to be comfortable sharing that much of yourself?

Pooh: Getting comfortable with who I am. I’m a very private person. You look on my Instagram, and it’s just me and people I’m doing business with. But as I was writing this record...we criticize people who rap about drugs and say, “you’re only showing one side, the glamorous side.” Or we criticize people on Instagram, “you’re just showing the good shit happening in your life.” I just decided when I was working, I gotta let these people know. This is what being a real musician is: peaks and valleys. When I hit that valley, I fucked up money, I fucked up opportunities. A lot of shit I fucked up on. That’s what I had to do to maintain. I’ve substitute taught, I’ve delivered packages for Amazon, and I drove Uber.

Phonte: I think that’s something that resonated with people because particularly now, I’m seeing the death of influencer culture. The jig is up on that shit. This buddy of mine said his girlfriend’s Uber driver was someone who’s killing it on social media. Even in those times where Pooh was substitute teaching or driving Uber, there was always pride in his work. The message to artists in 2019, there is no shame in an honest day’s pay. In this music shit, until you get to a point where you’re really established and you’re shit is on on, this shit is a sandcastle on a windy day at best. Until you get that rock-solid foundation, there is no shame in being a working musician.

VIBE: So what has it been like to take all those experiences to now managing other artists?

Pooh: That’s probably the best thing to happen for me, because I know what not to do. I have Lute, Blakk Soul, and my guy T. Smith. They’re all in different places in their careers and they’re all different ages, so it’s a wealth of information for them. And I don’t hide shit from them. So they know what it is. It’s okay if you have to get a job to support yourself until you don’t have to work that job anymore. And once you don’t have to work that job, let me show you how to budget your money accordingly so you aren’t doing stupid shit with your money, you make $100,000 in a year but you can’t account for $90,000 of it. I can make music, I have connections, but my greatest benefit for my artists is that I am an artist.

Phonte: I’ve always thought – and not saying this about Pooh, because I think he’s an amazing player – but a lot of times, the best players don’t make the best coaches. I think it’s easier to give instruction for someone like Pooh who has had those struggles and had to learn to play the game three or four different ways. It makes you a more compassionate coach because you can look at that kid say, “I see what you’re struggling with because I struggled with that,” versus a Jordan or somebody that had a lot of natural ability but isn’t able to teach that. Pooh is one of the best A&Rs I knew. He was responsible for bringing so many people in our circle. He was the first one to put Darien Brockington on a record, and that led to me and him working together. Pooh was the first one to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar, he was doing records with TDE way back before they were TDE. Pooh was responsible for King Mez coming into Dre’s camp and writing all that shit on Compton. He was the one making all those things happen, so when I saw him going into management, I knew he would kill it.

VIBE: A lot of rappers, if they aren’t from a popular rap area already, their goal is to put their city on the map. You guys actually did that: you put North Carolina on the map. Now there’s Cole, DaBaby, Rapsody.

Phonte: Me and Pooh say all the time: we were lead blockers. It wasn’t a glory position, but we helped clear the way and make daylight for these other brothers to come on. You just have to thank God that your influence was able to open that door. Because you could’ve been a wack nigga who opened the door and fucked it up for everybody. (laughs) It’s not a glory position, but me and Pooh never did it for the glory. We did it out of love for the music, a way to support our families, make beautiful records, and that was the end of it.

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Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity, to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize aTyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films, or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, its in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit--even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

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Solange Uses Her Divine Spirit To Calm The Mind And Body For "Bridge-s" Performance Piece

There's a serene feeling over the bodies standing in the iconic architecture at the Getty Center Museum. Jazzy horns, peaceful keys, and crisp guitar riffs gently interrupt the soothing silence as dancers dripped in marigold threads swayed to "Counting," a composition created by Solange. A series of odd numbers like "5", "7" and "9" are recited on a loop by half of her dancers while the others chant "6", "4" and "2." It's just a preview of her latest creation Bridge-s but felt like a dynamic meditation.

Bridge-s brings yet another magnetic piece into her series of interdisciplinary works that spawned after the release of her magnum opus, A Seat At The Table. The world was introduced to Solange's artistic side thanks to performance art pieces at the Guggenheim in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Composed by Solange and choreographed by Gerard & Kelly, Bridge-s was created with the pillars, beams, and columns around the museum in mind. Dancers and the orchestra used the space to their advantage, with tuba players catching the peripheral of attendees from afar.

Four rollouts will take place November 16-17, curated with a selection of films that include Black to Techno by Jenn Nkiru, AFRONAUTS and Boneshaker by Nuotama Bodomo, The State of Things by singer-songwriter Kish Robinson (Kilo Kish) and more. In its entirety, Bridge-s was designed to explore "transitions through time."

This was felt throughout the performance piece as dancers move with the intent of love, internal struggle, and unity. In a stunning zine designed by Sablā Stays, Gerard & Kelly shared the emphasis behind their modernist and inclusive approach.

"Our work, like hers, is part of an interdisciplinary effort throughout the arts and humanities to redefine modernism by critically engaging its prevailing narratives. By accounting for differences of gender, sexuality, and race. By focusing on intimate and collective histories. By centering our work around the body, dance and movement," they said.

Solange also opened up about the importance the museum and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg played in the performance piece. "Both Elbphilharmonie Hamburg and the Getty Museum have sure strong distinctive voices spatially, and so the intention is that all of the work, the movement, the language, the songs all align with those principles," she said. "Working with Gerard and Kelly, who share many of the same philosophies on their approach to interpreting time and space through performance has really built the foundation [for] the spirit of this collaboration."

Like the rest of us, the artist watched closely the dancers glide across the floor, while bandmembers release enchanting sonnets with vocalists dropping a few high notes in between. Guests like Thundercat (and his Pikachu backpack), Kilo Kish, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange and Tyler, The Creator were also left speechless after the performance.

“I just want to thank you guys for allowing me the space to evolve, experiment and express new frontiers,” Solange said to the crowd after the assembly provided endless cheers.

Learn more about Bridge-s and get free tickets here.

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Meet D Smoke, Inglewood And Hip-Hop's Next Hometown Hero

D Smoke is humble. The Inglewood native exudes an aura of maturation, needed for his quick ascension into popular culture as the first winner of Rhythm + Flow, Netflix’s hip-hop reality competition centered on the discovery of hip-hop’s next star. His signature authenticity shone throughout the 10-episode series and international audiences were drawn to his charisma as he proudly rapped about his lived experiences as a young black man in Inglewood.

“There’s such a rich history,” he says about his hometown, the inspiration for his forthcoming EP, over the phone. “I feel like it’s a beautiful but brief journey through my mind, my lived experiences, and the place that I’m extremely fond of.”

His musical confidence was displayed on the three-week series as he incorporated Spanish and live instrumentation to uplift the community-centered messaging embedded within his raps. Inspired by his childhood friends in Inglewood’s Latinx community, Smoke found music as unifier and way to remove barriers between Latinx and Black communities in his hometown. Demographics reflected in his students as a bilingual and music teacher at Inglewood High where he invests in the next generation of leaders.

He’s won an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) award with his older brother, Sir Darryl Farris aka SiR, for “Never,” a Billboard-charting song from Jaheim in 2007, and received songwriting credits for Ginuwine and The Pussy Cat Dolls projects.

As the show’s first winner, there’s an added level of pressure for the rapper who has completed three music videos and started work on a 15-track mixtape since the show’s release. In the midst of press runs, D Smoke opened up about his experience on Rhythm + Flow, his Inglewood High EP, and his next steps as an independent artist.

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VIBE: Tell me about Inglewood High, your latest EP.

D Smoke: Inglewood High is an EP about my experience coming up on Inglewood, going to Inglewood High, and teaching at the high school after I graduated from UCLA. It’s an important project for me because Inglewood High School holds stories for me as a student and teacher. There are so many youngsters that I had the privilege of teaching that still walk those hallways and are walking the same path I did. I thought it was only right to start with this project first; some of the songs are about my experience, while others are about trends or stories that I often heard growing up in Inglewood. I took a third person approach to tell these stories; some bright, some dark, but they really capture what’s going on in the city.

In a Time interview, you stated Rhythm + Flow’s authenticity around cyphers and battles undid your skepticism. Could you speak about your transition process from being a bilingual teacher into a contestant on the show?

As a teacher, you’re performing every single day, right? Your students are your harshest critics, so performing wasn’t nerve-wracking for me. It was more that I didn’t want to subject myself to the critique of another artist. In the later rounds, I was unsure that their biases would either serve in my favor or to my detriment. So it wasn’t the nerves of performing, but how would they receive and understand my art? Because I believe the audience...before I went on the show, I knew that there’s a large audience for what I do. Submitting to three judges is very different, but by the time we had gotten into the later rounds, I felt like they appreciated what I was doing artistically and creatively. By the end of it, they thought of me as a peer.

Towards the later episodes, you incorporated live instrumentation into your performances which won over Cardi, T.I., and Chance. Is the next direction for your artistry going to implement live band performances?

Going into the show, my goal was to do that before I left. [With] the last round’s challenge of making a live performance, I was like, “Okay, this is the time where we’re going to pull that rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, and show them my musicianship side.” To be honest, I’m a musician first. My first love was playing piano. My mom is a music instructor and minister of music. Since the age of six, I’ve been playing the piano. That’s going to be a huge part of my artistry; to the same extent that playing the drums, singing, and rapping. It speaks to me authenticity as an artist, creative, and musician.

Being on the show has developed your relationship with the audience, in addition to your original support system of Inglewood. How do you feel about having fans around the world who have fallen in love with your music during your time on Rhythm + Flow?

To keep it completely honest, the reception has been amazing. I’m getting messages from all over the world. People love what I did and represented on the show while being entertained by it at the same time. I think when you combine somebody believing in your message, but being thoroughly entertained by your presence, I feel like that’s a true impact on the audience. I’m really overwhelmed by how much love people are pouring out and the messages. I’m trying to read as many as possible, but I’m only one guy. My following grew from 7,000 followers prior to the show to 700,000 and counting, and that’s in less than a month.

 

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We climbing the Charts!!! Let’s push it to #1 #share #tellafriend #GodisGreat

A post shared by Supa Good (@dsmoke7) on Nov 9, 2019 at 12:31am PST

Some viewers waited until all episodes of Rhythm + Flow were on Netflix to binge-watch. Why do you think people should've watched and witnessed your evolution as an artist to step into confidence?

I think people should watch the entire journey; go back and do their detailed research because we aren’t necessarily doing different things than we were already doing. I speak in “we” because I have a strong team of people that were working with me to prepare for being on the show. When the audience watches my performance, it’s not like this is something that I haven’t already been doing. I look forward to seeing the growth in numbers of my previous works, whether it be Subtitles - the series that I did demonstrating my rapping ability in both languages and having fun over beats that I loved and influenced me. It’s super vital to go back and see the whole story because although I’m new to a lot of people, I’m not new to music by any means.

On Rhythm + Flow, Cardi referenced Kendrick Lamar in relation to your music. You have close affiliations with Top Dawg Entertainment, your brother SiR is Kendrick’s labelmate, and you’ve opened for the Pulitzer Prize winner in 2011 at the Whiskey A Go Go. Do you see yourself continuing your relationship with TDE?

 

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Today is my younger brother’s birthday. Same mom, same dad, same blood, same schools, same hair, same goals, but @InglewoodSiR is and will always be his OWN MAN. My younger bro opened doors for me that he may not even be aware of. He’s fearless and original. His music is DOPE as Fuck and he’s as real as they come. Go wish my lil bro @inglewoodsir of TDE a happy Birthday! LOVE YOU BRO! 7

A post shared by Supa Good (@dsmoke7) on Nov 5, 2019 at 7:42am PST

I like the way you put it..continuing that relationship. We’re neighbors; they’re less than 10 miles from me. I was my brother’s keyboard player and musical director while he went on tour with Miguel. For a couple of years, Top Dawg Entertainment has been somewhat of a home base in the sense that I’m supporting their works indirectly. What TDE is to my brother or was to my brothers in terms of the platform to allow his following to grow exponentially. It’ll be more of a partnership where there’s an open dialogue about best practices to collaborate with artists, how we can plan community events, and coordinating impactful things. It’s opening the door for me to collaborate with my brother, similar to how we started off, and have the full support of TDE. That’s something I’m excited about and look forward to sharing.

Are you hoping to bring the spotlight to Inglewood similar to TDE’s upliftment of Compton? On Rhythm + Flow, you rapped about the familiarity of victims of fatal police shootings, because everyone in Inglewood knows each other.

I’m certainly looking to put Inglewood on the map. A lot of things are happening on the business development side with the stadium being built and the rise in property values. I’m looking to make investments in property and building connections within the city to continue education and community development work. My background is in mentorship, so being a visible face in the public, championing youth-driven programs is something I look forward to doing.

Do you plan on using your cash prize to start educational programs at Inglewood High and give back to your students who inspired your performances in the competition?

I’m looking forward to doing the scholarship. I’ve initiated the conversations with the city of Inglewood and Inglewood High School. We’re going to have an event to celebrate. I want to see the marching band come out and play the same cadences they played when I was there. I want to drive the energy back towards competitive academics because that’s what Inglewood was for me. It may not have that reputation but I can go back and name all of the teachers who had that impact and pushed me into being an academically competitive student.

Since winning Rhythm + Flow, you’ve gained a greater following and secured a series of upcoming collaborations. Are you aiming to remain independent, reflective of your underground spirit?

I haven’t altered how I move through the world since winning Rhythm + Flow. I’m always seeing my family, eating healthy, getting my workouts in, and connecting with people that I love, admire or respect. Engaging in different texts and conversations that really keep me sharp. Those things aren’t going to change. We also got business endeavors that keep me sharp and very grounded in conversation. I’m not concerned with the about of new publicity, altering how I operate. It’s cool and flattering, but prior to this, I knew exactly what I’m here to do and those things are still in motion.

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